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For years I grappled and fought with the bird’s nest that sat on top of my head – my Medusa mane, a composition of frizz and giant ringlets that in no way could be tamed.
Growing up in a Russian-Jewish home with parents who thought North American styling products were akin to illegal substances such as heroin, I was never allowed to put them in my hair.
“Why buy gel? Your hair is so beautiful naturally,” my mother would say.
The tweens at school did not agree. From boys not wanting to kiss me when we played spin the bottle in Grade 7 to being called “the mop,” I suffered for my unruly hair.
People always say that you want the hair you don’t have, but having unmanageable curly hair goes deeper than that. It’s like being in a war with more than your scalp – it’s your self-esteem. You feel messy and disorderly, with your curls reflecting that attitude.
When I got to university, I believed my frizzy hair was a wedge that stood between me and everything – finding an internship, getting a boyfriend.
If only I could find a way to police the frizz and put it behind bars, I told myself, I would feel secure and sexy. I tried everything: rollers, hairspray, gels and, at one point, an iron.
Then, in my second year, a miracle happened. I was asked to be a hair model for Japanese hair straightening, a process by which the molecules of my curls would be shattered and reset in a bone-straight position.
I was the perfect “before” and “after” candidate, the hairdresser told me.
Although there are rumours about how hair relaxing can damage the scalp, for the next five years I didn’t find them to be true. All of the hairdresser’s promises were fulfilled: With my strands straight and smooth in a stylish bob, I was no longer Medusa but a distant cousin of Jennifer Aniston.
However, there was extreme damage done to my wallet. To keep up the straightening cost $700 every six months, and that was considered cheap. While some people thought I was crazy, I was willing to do anything to never again feel like that frazzled, frizzy-headed girl in Grade 7.
But when I moved out of my parents’ house at age 26 and rented an apartment, the upkeep of my sleek image became too costly.
I couldn’t hide from my inner Medusa any longer. It was time to embrace her and let her fly.
Seeking an alternative to my high-end habit, I turned to the oracle that always has answers: Google.
After hours of searching, I stumbled upon a “curly haired” salon, a place designed for girls like me who were at their wits’ end.
I doubted these so-called “Curl Ambassadors” could do anything without using a contraption of some sort, and though I bought the service called the “Curly-Doo,” I suspected I’d have the same unruly mop at the end of the appointment.
I dragged my feet so hard getting there that I arrived 45 minutes late. I secretly hoped they would turn me away and give me the excuse I needed to justify the expense of relaxing again.
Instead, my stylist simply said: “You are very late. Flip your head over.”
At that moment, my world and beliefs about myself were turned upside down along with my hair.
As my head was dunked in a tub full of freezing-cold water, then generously slathered with a jelly-like substance, I wondered what I had got myself into.
“Do you really think this will work?” I asked the stylist, Jacquai. “My curls are a lost cause.”
“No curly hair is hopeless,” she replied. “They just haven’t found a way to work with it, that’s all.”
After the hour was over, Jacquai had completed her mission. She had styled my hair using only her hands, water and a mixture of organic potions.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in the mirror: a naturally curly, Medusa-free me.
You could argue that hair is just hair. Yet, it is just such physical features that have such a large sway on how we view ourselves.
According to Jacquai, 75 per cent of the population have a wave or curl in their hair and don’t know what to do with it. Men cut theirs short. Women flat-iron theirs to death.
When I browse through a beauty magazine or take the subway to work, it makes me sad to see so many people repressing their natural beauty.
Since I tamed my locks, my world has changed. I have always been outgoing, but these days I seem to be more outspoken and self-assured than ever. On top of that, the compliments haven’t stopped coming.
Friends and co-workers tell me I am looking better than ever, but they can’t pinpoint the source of the change.
I don’t need to tell them. My Medusa mane sways and speaks for herself.
Alexandra Gelfenbein lives in Toronto.